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Cath Everett

Sift Media

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

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News: Shop floor workers make better leaders than general managers

Bosses who have experience of working on the shop floor make better leaders than career general managers, research has found.
A study conducted by London’s Cass Business School and the University of Sheffield, in which academics analysed every Formula One race – almost 18,000 – that had been staged over the last 60 years, revealed that teams led by bosses who started out as drivers or mechanics won twice as many races as their rivals.

The key to success was in hiring so-called ‘expert leaders’ – individuals who have deep technical knowledge and experience of the firm’s core business as well as strong leadership ability – rather than general managers, and the pattern was  found to apply across other organisations in both the public and private sector too.

This meant that the most successful team leaders were more likely to have started their careers as drivers or mechanics than as professional managers or engineers with degrees.

Co-author of the study, Dr Amanda Goodall, a visiting fellow at the Cass Business School, said: "Is it important that the CEO of McKinsey was an outstanding consultant first? Should the BMW boss be an engineer? Are doctors better at running NHS hospitals? We would argue, ‘yes’.” 

Over the last three decades, "managerialism" had become pervasive and major blue chip firms had shifted away from hiring CEOs with technical expertise towards recruiting professional managers and generalists. 
But "the swing of the pendulum has gone too far", she argued. "Leaders should first be experts in the core business of their organisations, whether they are bankers, hospital administrators, restaurateurs or technology innovators. Being a capable general manager alone is not sufficient,” Goodall said.
‘Expert leaders’ tended to make better managers because of their deep technical knowledge, which helped them to formulate more effective tactics and intuitive strategies. But they could also command greater credibility among their teammates because they knew what it was like to work on the shop floor.
Ttheir reputation and track record likewise helped to lure other talented personnel to join their teams.
“We can see why comparative newcomers like Red Bull, led by ex-driver Christian Horner, and Sauber, run by former mechanic Peter Sauber, are doing so well in Formula One. These teams may not have a 50-year history like Ferrari, but they are led by hands-on experts with deep intuition,” Goodall explained.

She has also conducted a previous study of 300 US hospitals, which found that those run by doctors outperform those run by managers.

Author Profile Picture
Cath Everett

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

Read more from Cath Everett

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